Evidences of human settlements in mainland Southeast Asia dated back to at least as early as 10,000 BC. Among these early traces of settlements are the Hoabinhian cultures, so named after the village of Hoa Binh located along the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam where they were first discovered. According to archaeological evidences, the Hoabinhian cultures appeared to spread from Northern Vietnam to Southern Thailand. Though there are no firm indications that the Hoabinhian people were the first and only group of people to settle in mainland Southeast Asia, based on similar artifacts and stone tools found in different caves in the region, it appears that they were, at least, the precursors of Southeast Asian civilizations.
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In terms of place(s) of origin, the Hoabinhian cultures seem to be shrouded in mystery. Though some experts believe that they were parts of the larger cultures of China and India, the hypothesis remains inconclusive, for there are so many broken links between pre-historic Southeast Asian cultures and their counterparts in China and India. For example, according to the artifacts found on mainland Southeast Asia, prehistoric Southeast Asian people appeared to have developed a distinct culture independent of influences from either China or India. One of the evidences of this independence is the development of metallurgic technology. According to a bronze spear head found near the village of Ban Chiang, Thailand, prehistoric people of mainland Southeast Asia appeared to have made bronze tools in about 2,000 BC, which was only 800 years or so after the Bronze Age began in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). If the trail of archaeological evidences were valid, after it began in Mesopotamia, bronze tool making technology reached China about 800 years later which, in effect, put China and Southeast Asia matching neck and neck into the Bronze Age. Also, given the fact that people did not have instant Internet-speed means of disseminating information then, it is hard to imagine that the Bronze Age moved into China and filtered down into Southeast Asia in such a short period of time. If it took some 800 years for bronze tool making technology to travel from Mesopotamia to China, it would take at least another 300 years for this technology to travel from China to Southeast Asia. Thus, it is very unlikely that pre-historic people of Southeast Asia learned their bronze tool making from China. On the other hand, it is quite possible that both geniuses in China and Southeast Asia developed their bronze tool making at about the same time. Furthermore, based on metal artifacts found at Ban Chiang, it appears that pre-historic people of Southeast Asia might be or were among the first to move into the Iron Age.
Collectively, Southeast Asia civilizations are full of paradoxes—that is to say they are not readily fit into our perceptional order of things. Therefore, studying Southeast Asian pre-historic civilizations is like trying to piece together badly broken pieces of a puzzle without its holding board and with many of the pieces missing.
As far as modern Southeast Asian society is concerned, it is almost universally accepted that both insular and mainland Southeast Asias are the offshoots of Indian and Chinese cultures. To the east, namely Vietnam, is the cultural basket of Chinese influences whereas to the west and south starting from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and, to some extent, the Philippines are the breeding grounds of Indian culture glossed over by Moslem influences in insular’s region. The Indian cultural influences over the majority of Southeast Asian region were both obvious and misleading that, for so many years, most early Southeast Asian scholars referred to the area as Farther India. The term
Southeast Asia had only been coined around 1945 during World War II when the Allied troops, namely the Americans, weary of the war and couldn’t care less about the cultural ties, called the region Southeast Asia so that it would be easier for the war planners to locate and monitor the progress of the troops who were chasing after the Japanese soldiers. Imagine you were a war planner in Washington, D.C. in an urgent situation trying to find Farther India or to locate your troops in the Indian Ocean. The result would certainly be a spectacular disaster, for the majority of Farther India is neither in the geographical proximity of India, nor located in the Indian Ocean.
Though it might be just a coincidence, the creating of the term Southeast Asia couldn’t have been more correct since the region was neither Farther India nor the cultural basket of India and China. In reality, Southeast Asia has its own independent identity and civilization except that it has been glossed over by more influential cultures namely those imported from India, China, Arabia, and recently the Western world brought forth by European explorers, missionaries, and colonialism.
As far as its culture and civilization are concerned, Southeast Asia is like an onion. To fully learn of its true nature, one must try to get to its core by peeling the outer layers one after another. Undoubtedly, Southeast Asian cultures and civilizations have as many layers as an onion. The more we peel, the more we will learn of its true nature.
In order to get to the unknown bottom layers, or core, or origin of a particular country or region, we have to start with the earliest known evidences. Because the purpose of this essay is to shed some lights on the origin of Cambodian people and their society, culture, and civilization, the main focus, from this point on, will be on mainland Southeast Asia where Cambodia is located. Thus, I will make reference to insular Southeast Asia only when it is necessary.
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